Rice to rally Arab nations

U.S. secretary of state also will push to isolate Iran in Mideast -- From Elise Labott -- CNN -- Tuesday, February 21, 2006; Posted: 1:45 p.m. EST (18:45 GMT)

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussed U.S. foreign policy priorities on Capitol Hill last week.

CAIRO, Egypt (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Cairo on Tuesday on a mission to rally Arab allies to increase pressure on militant group Hamas and isolate Iran. In her first trip to the region since Hamas' landslide victory in last month's Palestinian elections, Rice will lobby Egyptian and Saudi leaders to use their influence with Hamas to moderate its policies.

She also wants those countries to withhold financial aid from Hamas if it refuses to accept Israel's right to exist, renounce violence or abide by agreements made by the previous Palestinian leadership. Rice will meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and top Egyptian officials who have been holding talks with Hamas in an effort to moderate between the group and international community. "The Egyptians are having those discussions and, I think, doing very good work to try and convince Hamas that there is an international consensus to which now Hamas must respond," Rice said in an interview with Arab journalists. The Hamas-led parliament was sworn in Saturday, officially removing the ruling Fatah Party from its decades-long prominence in Palestinian politics. On Tuesday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas formally asked Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas' choice for prime minister, to form a new government, a process that could take up to a month or more. Hamas, which the United States, European Union and Israel consider a terrorist organization, has said it wants to include other parties in the government. Abbas' Fatah Party has refused invitations to join in a national unity government.

Palestinian aid under review

The United States has said it will review all aid to the Palestinian Authority and already has demanded $50 million be returned in anticipation of a Hamas-led government. Cairo plans to ask Rice to soften her position against Hamas and give the new Palestinian government a chance to prove itself, according to Egyptian state-run media Monday. In a roundtable with Arab journalists in advance of her trip, Rice said she hoped Hamas would make the "right choice" and give up its armed struggle against Israel in favor of a two-state solution. "Nothing would be better than to have Hamas make the right choice, because if you had all of the entities of the Palestinian people united in the renunciation of violence, disarming of militias, the acceptance of Israel's right to exist, I believe you could move the peace process along really very rapidly," she said. Rice also will tackle the thorny issue of democracy in Egypt. The Bush administration has pushed for democratic reform in the country but has muted its criticism of the Egyptian government's decision last week to postpone local elections for two years.

Rice to stress Iran's destabilizing effect

During her trip, Rice also will seek to further Iran's isolation. She will visit the United Arab Emirates, where she will meet with leaders from countries to the Gulf Cooperation Council. Rice will use her meetings to build on two years of diplomatic efforts, which have gained support from Europe, Russia and China for a tougher line against Iran. The U.N. Security Council formally received notification about Iran and its nuclear program from the International Atomic Energy Agency, opening the door to possible sanctions. Egypt has supported the move. While Arab governments have expressed concern about Iran's nuclear ambitions, they have balked at publicly giving support to the United States amid Muslim anger over the Iraq war and depictions of the Prophet Mohammed in cartoons as well as a perceived U.S. bias toward Israel. In an effort to convince Arab countries to sign on, Rice will highlight U.S. concerns that Iran is destabilizing the Middle East by supporting extremist groups in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Iraq. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, Rice said the new U.S. strategy against Iran's suspected nuclear program was to "remind the world that this has to be understood in the context of broader Iranian policies." (Full story)

"We will not be able to address the Iranian nuclear program and problem in a vacuum," she said. "It is Iran's regional policies that really are concerning, as we watch them, with their sidekick Syria, destabilizing places like Lebanon and the Palestinian territories and, indeed, even in southern Iraq." Rice told the journalist roundtable she hoped concerned Arab governments "are prepared to really say to the Iranians: 'You are going to be isolated from us too if you continue down this road.' " "There is really now an obligation to let the Iranians know in no uncertain terms that this isolation is going to be complete."

CNN's Guy Raz contributed to this report.




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